Presence. Detached and non-judgmental observation of thoughts and emotions. Living in the moment in full awareness. These are some of the fundamental qualities underlying the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness practice has its historical origins in the Buddhist tradition, particularly Vipassana or insight meditation, which was taught by Buddha himself 2500 years ago. It has since become popularized in the West as a secular vehicle for increased well-being and stress reduction, most notably by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts in 1979.
Mindfulness meditation continues to gain traction as a treatment modality and way of being as evidenced by the thousands of published scientific studies available. Mindfulness interventions have been shown to successfully treat a variety of clinical disorders, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic pain. In healthy participants, mindfulness produces positive effects on psychological well-being and enhances cognitive functioning.
Similarly, the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca is gaining prominence among biomedical researchers and the general public for its beneficial effects in treating substance abuse, treatment-resistant depression, and as a method for spiritual growth, healing, and development. Despite its growing popularity, little is known about the psychological mechanisms underpinning the beneficial effects of ayahuasca.
New research at the Autonomous University of Barcelona — led by Jordi Riba who previously published a study on the long-term use of ayahuasca — posits that the ayahuasca experience shares several commonalities with mindfulness practice in the context of contemporary Western psychology. The authors note that although mindfulness is a “complex construct that is difficult to define,” for the purposes of their study, “being mindful” implies a certain particular awareness that is, “present-centered, non-reactive, characterized by openness, acceptance, and by a non-judgmental stance towards the experience.”
Alongside mindfulness, the researchers also considered something known as “decentering,” which is characterized by the ability to take a detached view of one’s thoughts and emotions as temporary events of the mind. A key characteristic of the ayahuasca experience is the promotion of a detached view of one’s own thoughts and emotions. Similarly, “increasing this capacity is the goal of mindfulness interventions.” Further parallels between mindfulness and ayahuasca are evident in other areas, including increased awareness, changes in self-perspective, decreased hopelessness, and positive impact of general well-being.
Based on these commonalities, the researchers aimed to deepen their understanding of the psychological experience brought about by ayahuasca and to explore if improved mindfulness-related capabilities could be enhanced by the intake of a single dose of ayahuasca.
Twenty-five individuals were recruited for the study, 14 women and 11 men, all of whom had previous experience with ayahuasca, having taking it on average 79 times, except for two individuals who took it for the first time in this study. Participants were only included in the study if they did not have any psychiatric, alcohol or substance abuse disorders and had no evidence of a current significant medical illness. All participants abstained from ayahuasca for 15 days prior to the study and did not consume alcohol, medications or any other drugs for 24 hours before and after the ayahuasca session.
To assess the effects of ayahuasca intake on aspects of mindfulness and decentering, the 25 participants were given two questionnaires to complete 24 hours before and 24 hours after ayahuasca intake. These questionnaires included statements like, “When I take a shower or bath, I stay alert to the sensation of water on my body” or, “I can separate myself from my thoughts and feelings.” The researchers compared responses of the participants obtained 24 hours before and 24 hours after ayahuasca intake and found significant increases in two facets of the mindfulness questionnaire considered to measure acceptance, “non-Judge” and “non-React.”
These two factors correspond to not judging one’s inner experience, thoughts or emotions and not reacting to the inner experience, by letting thoughts and feelings arise and subside without getting caught up in them. There was also a significant increase in decentering, or the ability to take a detached view of one’s thoughts and emotions. These results highlight the rapid increase in mindfulness-related qualities after ayahuasca intake and, according to the authors, “provide an explanatory mechanism that could contribute to the beneficial effects reported for ayahuasca in the treatment of addiction and depression.”
The researchers also found that scores in some aspects of mindfulness capacities were on par with or better than scores obtained in another mindfulness study that compared a large group of meditators and non-meditators using the same questionnaires. Thus, improvements in mindfulness capabilities are not limited to mindfulness meditation practices, but can also be achieved by ayahuasca intake.
While these results are promising and suggest the therapeutic benefits and potential of ayahuasca are due to increases in mindfulness-related capacities, the authors caution that their results should be considered preliminary. One of the major limitations of the study is the small sample size (only 25 individuals) and the previous exposure to ayahuasca of 23 of these individuals. However, the authors note that despite this previous exposure, “the fact that a single ayahuasca dose increases mindfulness capacities in experienced users who were already more mindful than the general population […], underscores the power of ayahuasca to enhance these abilities even when the baseline level is high.”
Future studies will be needed in order to validate these findings and address some of the limitations of the present study. Despite these limitations, continued research into the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca will go a long way towards solidifying its worldwide acceptance as a valid treatment modality and incredible tool for personal growth, similar to mindfulness.